By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
ON A FALL evening in 2006, John Foster arrived home from a long day of work just as the sun was setting. Still wearing his brown UPS uniform, Foster strolled to the end of his Plymouth driveway to retrieve the day's mail.
Sifting through the usual credit card offers and other junk, one letter caught Foster's eye. Sent from Avelo Mortgage, it claimed Foster had been late on a payment for 1564 Hillside Avenue in north Minneapolis.
Foster knew this to be impossible. He was always diligent when it came to paying bills on time. Not to mention Foster had never even heard of 1564 Hillside Avenue.
That night Foster called Avelo. Had there been a mistake? he wondered. But when a representative recited his social security number, his birth date, and his Plymouth address, Foster knew this wasn't going to be that simple.
In the months that followed, Foster and his wife, Melony Michaels, saw more evidence that someone was racking up a big tab using his identity. He received a notice for a second mortgage that had been taken out on 1564 Hillside just a month after the first mortgage. Trent Bowman, a loan officer they had never met, sent them a Christmas card thanking them for their business. Calls began to pour in from debt collectors.
At first, Foster and Michaels were naïve about the consequences of being caught up in an identity fraud scheme. They hadn't done anything wrong, so they thought that once they notified the right people, the whole mess would go away. The FBI seemed like a good place to start, but the response was less than comforting.
"They said, 'You can never catch these people, they're too slippery,'" remembers Michaels. "Isn't that terrible? If someone came over and stole my TV, I could have someone over here in a half hour."
Michaels called the police and U.S. Commerce Department. No one was interested. If the family wanted to solve the case, they'd have to investigate it themselves.
Over the next year, searching for answers became Michaels's life. She estimates that she devoted more than 1,000 hours calling banks and digging through mortgage and property records. Meanwhile, the family's interest rates skyrocketed and their credit score plummeted. The sound of the phone ringing became enough to send a chill through the whole house. At one point, debtors were calling 70 times a day. They were so tenacious they would also call neighbors and even Foster's 14-year-old son.
"Nobody cared when we said, 'No, this isn't us. We can show you the police reports,'" says Michaels.
What Michaels's investigation uncovered terrified the family. Using her husband's name, the culprits had taken out four mortgages on two houses. They were in the process of taking out eight more. To cover their tracks, the imposters created a web of fraudulent paperwork in Foster's name: social security cards, a driver's license, tax returns, bank statements, W2s, 401k, pay stubs, letters from fictional children.
Ironically, it was Foster's perfect credit score that made him the ideal victim. Because he was in such good financial standing, the imposters had to sign less paperwork and answer fewer questions from the banks.
In October 2007, Bloomington police investigator Cory Cardenas took the case. Cardenas had a license in real estate, making him one of the few investigators with the expertise to unravel such a convoluted crime. Cardenas followed the paper trail to Larry Darnell Maxwell, a 52-year-old Twin Cities real estate broker fresh off probation for a 2001 fraud conviction.
Maxwell was the nucleus of what turned out to be one of the biggest mortgage fraud cases in Hennepin County history. Using fake and stolen identities and forged documents, Maxwell had made more than $2 million setting up the fraudulent purchases of nine houses, including the two in Foster's name. After a six-week trial, a jury found Maxwell guilty of 18 counts, landing him a 16 1/2-year prison sentence.
After Maxwell went down, his confederates quickly followed. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office charged Tyrone T. Williams with multiple felonies for buying Maxwell properties under the name Donald Williams. Jerome Kingrussell, who bought property under Foster's name, was given a nine-year suspended prison sentence. Tynessia Snoddy, one of Maxwell's real estate agents, was charged with four felonies for aiding and abetting identity theft and is due in court next month.
But prosecutors couldn't catch everyone who was involved. And one would go on to a second career in local politics.
BY THE TIME Foster received the letter from a mortgage company he had never heard of, Jerry Moore was the interim director of north Minneapolis' Jordan Area Community Council and was looking to take on the job full time. In March 2007, the board met in the neighborhood council's office to vote on Moore's candidacy.
Some questioned whether Moore was qualified. He talked big, but didn't have much experience. He also didn't have a college degree, a prerequisite for the position, according to council members.
But the hiring of a neighborhood association's executive director is entirely up to a vote by members, and the charming northsider was popular. Not only did Moore get the job, but the board voted to give him a $60,000 salary—$25,000 more than the average at the time, says Neighborhood Revitalization Program director Bob Miller.